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There are few statistics as stunning as the following simple, single number: The United States spends two times more on its military than all the other countries of the world, combined.
Yes, that’s right. All 200 or so of them. Combined.
According to GlobalSecurity.org, last year, the US dropped about $625 billion in taxpayer dollars on its military, while all the rest of the world together spent $500 billion. (The aggregate global figures come from 2004, but have been steady over the prior decade.) However, if you also add in nuclear weapons costs handled separately by the Energy Department, Veterans Affairs, interest on money borrowed to fund previous wars, and the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the total rises to a jaw-dropping one trillion dollars per year.
Think of how astonishing that is.
Imagine if you lived down the street from a guy who insisted that his house had to be two times bigger than all the other houses in the neighborhood, combined. You and your neighbors live in 2,000 square foot houses, but he has to have an 800,000 square foot house. That’s one that would be the length of three football fields long, and three football fields wide.
Imagine you and all your fishing buddies tied up next to a guy who had to have a boat that was twice as big as all of yours combined. You guys have 15 footers. His would be 6,000 feet long, or six Queen Marys, length-to-length.
Imagine that you knew someone who had to spend double on dinner what everyone else dining in a decent restaurant was spending. The average meal for the rest of you costs 25 dollars. This guy insists on spending $10,000 on one meal, of the same food, prepared by the same chef.
This is an astonishing ratio in so many ways.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about it is that nobody particularly talks about it. It’s one thing to say that military spending has now joined Social Security as the third rail of American politics – you touch it, you die. And, of course, now we are treated to the visage of the “liberal” – even “socialist” and “defeatist” “pal of terrorists” – guy in the White House actually increasing military spending, and doing so at a time when the federal budget is hemorrhaging red ink as if it were the Exxon Valdez, drunken captain at the helm and all. But it’s actually even worse than that.
Not only can you not seriously discuss cutting military spending in America, you can’t even know about this spending ratio relative to the rest of the world, or contemplate what it means. Do you know of any single politician who ever mentions this?
It’s also astonishing because the Cold War is over, the once Nazi-controlled Germany has turned into one of the most pacifist countries in the world, Japan is all about making cars and TVs, and there isn’t a serious enemy of the United States anywhere on either the geographical or temporal horizon. Right now, we are spending vast sums of money to fight gaggles of angry young men armed with box-cutters, and scraggly mullahs hiding in remote mountainous caves. And they’re winning.
It is conceivable that China might, maybe, someday, spend something like what the US does on its military. But for what? Right now China spends a tenth of what the US does on its military, and considerably less than that if you count the other items that bring the US total up to a trillion per year. If it reached parity, what would that permit it that is now impossible, apart from perhaps taking back Taiwan and creating a twentieth century Latin America-style neighborhood it could dominate even more than it does already? Would it allow China to invade the United States, or bend it to Chinese will for fear of a military confrontation? Of course not.
Which is another reason this ratio is so astonishing. Say whatever you want about nuclear weapons from a moral perspective. They have nevertheless changed the dynamic of international politics radically. No state will ever again invade another one which possesses a nuclear arsenal and the means to project it in quantity. The doctrine of mutually-assured destruction may indeed be mad from a psychological perspective, but it works – at least apart from situations in which the attacking country’s leadership is either so bonkers or so determined on an issue that national suicide isn’t a deterrent. Of course, non-state actors like al Qaeda are a problem, because they provide little target for retaliation, but would spending another $100 billion on more destroyers or fighter jets solve that problem? Of course not.
This grossly disproportionate ratio of military spending to other countries is also astonishing, and astonishingly obscene, for what it costs this country in missed opportunities. We are by far the richest country in the world – no one is even close. And we have no real enemies. And, as noted, we spend double the entire world combined in order to defend against those non-enemies.
Such thoughtful priorities also entitle our lucky population to have a national healthcare system that is ranked 37th from the top, worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. Isn’t that special? Morocco does better than we do. So do Colombia, Chile and Costa Rica. And Dominica. Does anyone really even know where Dominica is? All those weapons systems don’t just purchase for us a lack of security, they also buy a country where 50 million Americans lack health insurance of any kind, and countless others are grossly under-insured (including those who don’t know it yet, but will find out fast if they ever get sick).
In part because of this fine health care system, the United States also ranks 29th globally on infant mortality. And the longitudinal trend isn’t pretty. We were 12th in the world in 1960, and 23rd in 1990. Now we are tied with Poland and Slovakia. The good news, though, is that we are still by far and away first worldwide on obesity, with 31 percent of the population qualifying for that distinction, over six percent higher than our nearest competitor! The rest of the world can kick us around all day long, but nobody can ever take that distinction away from us. Oh, and we had almost twice as many plastic surgery procedures as any other country in the world. I guess these figures also partially explain why the richest country in the world, by far, is ranked 47th in the world in terms of life expectancy, below Boznia-Herzegovina, Jordan and Guam. Cool. Go USA!
Dollars paying for a bloated military are not only not spent on healthcare, they also aren’t spent on social development either. The United States had more teen pregnancies per capita than anyone in the world by far – about half-again as many as our nearest competitor. We have the highest number of prisoners per capita, right up there (but still well ahead of) Russia and Belarus. The US has two million prisoners, about half a million more than China, despite having about one-fifth the Chinese population. We also have more crimes committed than any other country in the world, about twice the number as the number two country on the list. Oh, and by far the highest divorce rate in the world. I’m pretty sure you won’t see this stuff mentioned in the tourist literature.
Expenditures on the military also mean dollars not spent on teaching our kids (especially about comparative national statistics!). The richest country in the world is ranked 39th on education spending as a percent of GDP, below Tunisia, Bolivia, Jamaica and Malawi. As a result, the US shows up as 18th in mathematical literacy, and 15th in reading literacy. Woo-hoo!
Spending on rockets and guns does not bode well for economic development, either. Despite being in hock for more national debt than any other country in the world – even before recent events – we rank only 16th in broadband access per capita. And, we are a dismal 92nd in the world in terms of the equitable distribution of family income within our society. Cameroon does better. So does Russia, Uzbekistan, Laos and Burkina Faso. Along with most of the rest of the world.
In short, in exchange for the privilege of dwarfing the entire rest of the solar system in military spending, in order to defend ourselves against an enemy we don’t have, the United States has purchased a second rate healthcare system, a second rate educational system, and social and economic characteristics within spitting distance of Sub-Saharan Africa.
For all of these reasons, our devotion to military spending is really quite amazing, and really begs the question of what could explain so patently foolish a national policy. Undoubtedly, there are many explanations.
To begin with, this would hardly be the first essay ever to note the American propensity toward paranoia. A country twisted enough that it can spend six years fighting a brutal and costly war in Iraq on the basis of 9/11 attacks that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with is certainly a country capable of outspending the entire rest of the planet on its military, two times over.
What does it say, moreover, about our near-complete failing at the practice of diplomacy, that we feel compelled to sit atop a military arsenal of such outrageous proportions, and to send bombs and military bases, rather than diplomats, as our calling card around the world?
Without question, furthermore, such an obscene military budget is grossly inflated because of sheer greed. It wasn’t some long-haired, Birkenstocks-wearing, pipe-smoking, Berkeley professor of French literature, after all, who warned us of the dangers of the metastasizing military industrial complex. It was Dwight Eisenhower – conservative Republican president, lifetime military man, commander of NATO and hero of World War II.
Eisenhower was right, of course, although it would have been nice had he acted on his wisdom during his two terms, rather than sounding hypocritical warnings about this danger only as he walked out the door. In any case, as in so many other domains – but with an intensity unmatched elsewhere – when it comes to providing military hardware, corporate America has come to see the federal government as little more than a handy centralized collection system, to which it then avails itself. But, of course, everybody is in the act now, with members of Congress from every district in the land fighting to protect their defense dollars, and selfish Americans screaming about deficit spending on Sundays, and then going to work at the local defense boondoggle plant on Mondays.
And there is another explanation, as well. You don’t need to spend a trillion bucks per year in order to protect the United States from attack by another country. The existing stockpile of nuclear warheads more or less guarantees that that will never happen. You also don’t need to spend that money in order to fight some sort of conventional war on land or sea, as occurred during World War II. No country comes remotely near the United States in terms of battlefield and naval hardware, and even those who possess significant quantities of such materiel almost entirely lack the capability of projecting such military power beyond their borders. Finally, you don’t need all that money to fight ragtag bands of terrorists either. On that front, smarts go a lot farther than dollars (not that we would know, of course).
The only thing that such a seemingly bloated military is good for is power projection. If you want to intimidate developing countries into selling you their natural resources at ridiculously low prices, a giant military is the only way to do it. If you want to force weaker countries into joining political alliances they are otherwise not remotely interested in, some good old-fashioned gunboat diplomacy is the way to make that happen.
Or, at least, was. The United States is no longer very much able to shove around other countries like it used to, and yet, even the so-called liberal Obama administration is now seeking to spend even more on the American military than the monsters of the last regime did.
It was one thing – albeit still a stupid bargain – to forgo health, education, and the good life for an empire.
But what Americans should be asking themselves right now is, whether giving away happiness and prosperity in exchange for a non-empire is finally a bridge too far, even for a country so justly famous for its chronic political immaturity.
DAVID MICHAEL GREEN is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. He is delighted to receive readers’ reactions to his articles (firstname.lastname@example.org), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. More of his work can be found at his website, www.regressiveantidote.net